Monday, 24 March 2014

Ethics - and writing about people with no right of reply - by Jo Carroll.

I write about travel - part of the fun of travelling is the people I meet.

I make no secret of my writing when I'm travelling. My notebook is on the table beside me as I eat; on my knee in bus stations. It is often the focus of poeples' curiosity. Am I a writer, they ask.

Some take the opportunity to tell me the story of their lives and then ask if I'll put them in a book. They're looking for their time in the spotlight. I make no promises. Others are reticent, needing to know I'll not scatter their secrets. I never do - if someone tells me something in confidence, then I keep it to myself.

And I give details of my books and web address to anyone who asks, so they can check up and see what I've said about them. They have a right to reply.

But I've just come back from Cuba, where people only have access to the internet if they can prove they need it for their businesses or for educational reasons. And this excludes, not only the obvious sites like Facebook and Twitter (and this blog), but also Amazon. There are no e-readers in Cuba. And so no access to books like mine.

Which leaves me with a dilemma. I have always felt that people have a right to see what I say about them. I change names and identifying details, but most people could find themselves without too much trouble. I work hard to make sure I find good in people, to write with respect, even if I disagree with their ideas or way of life. I don't have a right to make judgements.

But, if I write about Cubans I met - they will never know, never be able to contact me and say, no, that is not how they remember it. (Or yes, wasn't that birthday cake wonderful!). They have no right of reply.

Does that mean, ethically, that I shouldn't write about them?

If I don't, I'm colluding with a system that keeps Cubans and their ideas and difficulties out of the literature spotlight.

If I do, I'm making people into little more than performing animals, to be observed and commented on, without them having any possibility of making a contribution of their own.

What would you do?

(If you want to see how I've written about other people, there are plenty of links on my website:


catdownunder said...

I think the answer to that is you write, as you do, carefully. You don't collude with the system. You give people a chance to be heard. You ask, "What do they want to say?" rather than "What do I want to say?"
I suppose it is a slightly different emphasis from most travel writing - which tends to be about the writer's reactions. Of course you can write about your own reactions too but the writer who asks the other question is going to do something positive for the people they have met.

CallyPhillips said...

There is something of a dilemma, certainly, and I know how it feels, it took me years to write about Cuba after visiting. BUT I think there's not as much of a problem as you might think (and as someone with a degree in moral philosophy/majoring in ethics, hey, you can trust me!! LOL)
Seriously. I think the point is, Jo that in your travel writing EVERYTHING and EVERYONE you write about are actually filtered through the prism of YOUR attitudes and observations. You have to accept that actually your writing is as much about YOU as it is about your 'subjects' (aka the people you meet) And as such, as long as you write honestly and in a spirit of openness and respect for the people you write about, it will all be okay. You cannot (I cannot, none of us can be) be either an apologist or a true portrayer of the Cuban people, you can only give your views) I faced this same issue actually when writing about DEAR DEAR friends with 'learning disability' labels, and discovered that what I was doing was advocacy writing - the same rules apply. I couldn't get 'informed consent' so that put a greater responsibility on me to make sure that I didn't pontificate or mis-represent but keeping quiet and not helping 'voice the unvoiced' is no more ethically sound than not being able to get 'informed' consent. Just restructure your thought process - admit that travel writing is (and it's one of the things I love best about your writing) is about YOU and YOUR views of the world and we'll see your version of people who otherwise we might never get to engage with. After all, travel writing IS a vicarious experience and should encourage people to learn and discover more for themselves. I suspect you are probably not comfortable with the notion of 'fictionalising' people but actually whenever we write anything we are creating a 'storied' version - hope this helps! Deep breath, get writing. Let people see drafts if necessary to see if there's any problem with 'tone' but don't keep quiet about your experience.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

The best way a writer can help create change in unjust environments is to write about them, and that of course includes the people. You are giving them a voice they wouldn't have otherwise.

Val Poore said...

I have to say I agree with all of the above. I think you give most of the people you meet not only a voice, but also a dignity in the way your write about them. Keep on doing what you do, Jo. As Cally says, they are all filtered through your perceptions in any event.

JO said...

Thank you all.

Cat and Karen - I'm not sure I seem myself as colluding or challenging any systems - it's not for me to judge how other countries organise themselves. But I do try to give people a voice without putting my own oar in too much.

Cally and Val - following on from above - it is impossible to keep my voice out of it. I suspect that there are times when my tendency to see the funny side can get in the way of letting people speak for themselves.

But thank you all. I promise to write as respectfully as possible about the people of Cuba, given that they can't answer back.

Jenny Woolf said...

I feel myself that in that case one has a duty to be a reporter. Obviously one must take care not to expose people to risk, or ridicule. But you wouldn't do that anyway I am sure.

But ... I wonder what Dervla Murphy has written about this, or whether it has occurred to her. She after all travels in many places where people have no recourse to outside minds. I feel it must have done. I have spent time with her and found her incredibly thoughtful, subtle and intelligent. So if she hasn't discussed the issue in print, it could be illuminating to find out what she thinks.

JO said...

Thank you, Jenny - it's an interesting thought, wondering what Dervla Murphy would say. Much of her writing precedes the internet - so maybe it simply didn't occur to her, as most of the people she met didn't have access to her books. But she writes respectfully - so that's someone to look up to when I'm wrestling with this.

Jenny Woolf said...

She's old, though I am sure incredibly fit, but I doubt she would spend much time blogging. However, there are fairly recent interviews which give a glimpse into her approach, including one on her website

Although I wouldn't really say I know her, she was one of the people I have met in my life who has inspired me, because she viewed the people she met (rich or poor) and the places she visited as entirely as on a level with herself and her own life. She simultaneously clearly saw, and clearly didn't see, the cultural, political and financial differences between people. Should think it's hard to maintain this "double vision", but I suspect that it contains the answer to your dilemma.

Which is a slightly different way of saying what you are saying. :)

JO said...

Jenny - you are a star!!